Parallel passages (Eusebian Canon): Matthew 16:20-24; Luke 9:21-23
30And he charged them to tell no one about him.
31And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
32And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.
33But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”
34And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Interpretation by the Church Fathers
Hard and grievous does that appear which the Lord hath enjoined, that “whosoever will come after Him, must deny himself.”4 But what He enjoineth is not hard or grievous, who aideth us that what He enjoineth may be done. For both is that true which is said to Him in the Psalm, “Because of the words of Thy lips I have kept hard ways.”5 And that is true which He said Himself, “My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”6 For whatsoever is hard in what is enjoined us, charity makes easy. We know what great things love itself can do. Very often is this love even abominable and impure; but how great hardships have men suffered, what indignities and intolerable things have they endured, to attain to the object of their love? whether it be a lover of money who is called covetous; or a lover of honour, who is called ambitious; or a lover of beautiful women, who is called voluptuous. And who could enumerate all sorts of loves? Yet consider what labour all lovers undergo, and are not conscious of their labours; and then does any such one most feel labour, when he is hindered from labour. Since then the majority of men are such as their loves are, and that there ought to be no other care for the regulation of our lives, than the choice of that which we ought to love; why dost thou wonder, if he who loves Christ, and who wishes to follow Christ, for the love of Him denies himself? For if by loving himself man is lost, surely by denying himself be is found.
4 Mark 8:34.
5 Ps. 16:4, Sept. (17 English version).
6 Matt. 11:30.
Augustine of Hippo. (1888). Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament. In P. Schaff (Ed.), R. G. MacMullen (Trans.), Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels (Vol. 6, p. 408). New York: Christian Literature Company.
The Lord Himself, too, makes it evident who it was that suffered; for when He asked the disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of man, am?”16 and when Peter had replied, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God;” and when he had been commended by Him [in these words], “That flesh and blood had not revealed it to him, but the Father who is in heaven,” He made it clear that He, the Son of man, is Christ the Son of the living God. “For from that time forth,” it is said, “He began to show to His disciples, how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the priests, and be rejected, and crucified, and rise again the third day.”1 He who was acknowledged by Peter as Christ, who pronounced him blessed because the Father had revealed the Son of the living God to him, said that He must Himself suffer many things, and be crucified; and then He rebuked Peter, who imagined that He was the Christ as the generality of men supposed2 [that the Christ should be], and was averse to the idea of His suffering, [and] said to the disciples, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it; and whosoever will lose it for My sake shall save it.”3 For these things Christ spoke openly, He being Himself the Saviour of those who should be delivered over to death for their confession of Him, and lose their lives.
16 Matt. 16:13.
1 Matt. 16:21.
2 Literally, “supposing Him to be Christ according to the idea of men.”
3 Matt. 16:24, 25.
Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 446–447). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
And though he seem to have spoken but one single thing, yet His sayings are three, “Let him renounce himself,” and “Let him bear his cross,” and “Let him follow me;” and two of them are joined together, but the one is put by itself.
But let us see first what it can be to deny one’s self. Let us learn first what it is to deny another, and then we shall know what it may be to deny one’s self. What then is it to deny another? He that is denying another,—for example, either brother, or servant, or whom you will,—should he see him either beaten, or bound, or led to execution, or whatever he may suffer, stands not by him, doth not help him, is not moved, feels nothing for him, as being once for all alienated from him. Thus then He will have us disregard our own body, so that whether men scourge, or banish, or burn, or whatever they do, we may not spare it. For this is to spare it. Since fathers too then spare their offspring, when committing them to teachers, they command not to spare them.
So also Christ; He said not, “Let him not spare himself,” but very strictly, “Let him renounce himself;” that is, let him have nothing to do with himself, but give himself up to all dangers and conflicts; and let him so feel, as though another were suffering it all.
And He said not, “Let him deny,”1 but “Let him renounce;”2 even by this small addition intimating again, how very far it goes. For this latter is more than the former.
“And let him take up his cross.” This arises out of the other. For to hinder thy supposing that words, and insults, and reproaches are to be the limits of our self-renunciation, He saith also how far one ought to renounce one’s self; that is, unto death, and that a reproachful death. Therefore He said not, “Let him renounce himself unto death,” but, “Let him take up his cross;” setting forth the reproachful death; and that not once, nor twice, but throughout all life one ought so to do. “Yea,” saith He, “bear about this death continually, and day by day be ready for slaughter. For since many have indeed contemned riches, and pleasure, and glory, but death they despised not, but feared dangers; I,” saith He, “will that my champion should wrestle even unto blood, and that the limits of his course should reach unto slaughter; so that although one must undergo death, death with reproach, the accursed death, and that upon evil surmise, we are to bear all things nobly, and rather to rejoice in being suspected.”
“And let him follow me.” That is, it being possible for one to suffer, yet not to follow Him, when one doth not suffer for Him (for so robbers often suffer grievously, and violaters of tombs, and sorcerers); to hinder thy supposing that the mere nature of thy calamities is sufficient, He adds the occasion of these calamities.
And what is it? In order that, so doing and suffering, thou mayest follow Him; that for Him thou mayest undergo all things; that thou mayest possess the other virtues also. For this too is expressed by “Let him follow me;” so as to show forth not fortitude only, such as is exercised in our calamities, but temperance also, and moderation, and all self-restraint. This being properly “to follow,” the giving heed also to the other virtues, and for His sake suffering all.
For there are who follow the devil even to the endurance of all this, and for his sake give up their own lives; but we for Christ, or rather for our own sakes: they indeed to harm themselves both here and there; but we, that we may gain both lives.
How then is it not extreme dullness, not to show forth even the same fortitude with them that perish; and this, when we are to reap from it so many crowns? Yet with us surely Christ Himself is present to be our help, but with them no one.
Now He had indeed already spoken this very injunction, when He sent them, saying, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles” (for, saith He, “I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves,” and, “ye shall be brought before kings and governors”),1 but now with more intensity and severity. For then He spake of death only, but here He hath mentioned a cross also, and a continual cross. For “let him take up,” saith He, “his cross;” that is,” let him carry it continually and bear it.” And this He is wont to do in everything; not in the first instance, nor from the beginning, but quietly and gradually, bringing in the greater commandments, that the hearers may not count it strange.
2 ἀπαρνησάσθω. [Comp. note, p. 338.]
1 Matt. 10:5, 16, 18.
John Chrysostom. (1888). Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew. In P. Schaff (Ed.), G. Prevost & M. B. Riddle (Trans.), Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (Vol. 10, pp. 339–340). New York: Christian Literature Company.
Basil the Great
We must strive after a quiet mind. As well might the eye ascertain an object put before it while it is wandering restless up and down and sideways, without fixing a steady gaze upon it, as a mind, distracted by a thousand worldly cares, be able clearly to apprehend the truth. He who is not yet yoked in the bonds of matrimony is harassed by frenzied cravings, and rebellious impulses, and hopeless attachments; he who has found his mate is encompassed with his own tumult of cares; if he is childless, there is desire for children; has he children? anxiety about their education, attention to his wife,4 care of his house, oversight of his servants,5 misfortunes in trade, quarrels with his neighbours, lawsuits, the risks of the merchant, the toil of the farmer. Each day, as it comes, darkens the soul in its own way; and night after night takes up the day’s anxieties, and cheats the mind with illusions in accordance. Now one way of escaping all this is separation from the whole world; that is, not bodily separation, but the severance of the soul’s sympathy with the body, and to live so without city, home, goods, society, possessions, means of life, business, engagements, human learning, that the heart may readily receive every impress of divine doctrine. Preparation of heart is the unlearning the prejudices of evil converse. It is the smoothing the waxen tablet before attempting to write on it.6
4 γυναικὸς φυλακή, rather “guardianship of his wife.”
5 οἰκετῶν πσοστασίαι, rather “protection of his servants.”
6 Rather “for just as it is impossible to write on the wax without previously erasing the marks on it, so is it impossible to communicate divine doctrines to the soul without removing from it its preconceived and habitual notions.”
Basil of Caesarea. (1895). Letters. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), B. Jackson (Trans.), St. Basil: Letters and Select Works (Vol. 8, p. 110). New York: Christian Literature Company.
Ambrose of Milan
Innocence, then, and knowledge make a man blessed. We have also noted already that the blessedness of eternal life is the reward for good works. It remains, then, to show that when the patronage of pleasure or the fear of pain is despised (and the first of these one abhors as poor and effeminate, and the other as unmanly and weak), that then a blessed life can rise up in the midst of pain. This can easily be shown when we read: “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you for righteousness’ sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”4 And again: “He that will come after Me, let him take up his cross and follow Me.”5
4 S. Matt. 5:11, 12.
5 S. Matt. 16:24.
Ambrose of Milan. (1896). On the Duties of the Clergy. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, & H. T. F. Duckworth (Trans.), St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters (Vol. 10, p. 45). New York: Christian Literature Company.
Cyril of Alexandria
MIGHTY generals encourage their trained warriors to deeds of courage, not only by promising them the honours of victory, but even by telling them that the very fact of suffering brings them glory, and gains for them all praise. For it is impossible for those who would win fame in battle not sometimes to have to endure wounds also from their opponents. But their suffering is not without its reward, for they are praised as those who bravely assaulted the enemy; and the very wound bears witness to the courage and valour of their mind. And much the same arguments we see our Lord Jesus Christ also using in a discourse, the occasion of which was as follows; He had just shewn the disciples that it was altogether necessary for Him to endure the wicked enterprizes of the Jews, and be mocked by them, and spit upon in the face, and put to death, and the third day rise again. To prevent them, therefore, from imagining that He indeed for the life of the world would suffer the scorn of those murderers, and the other cruelties which they inflicted upon Him; but that they would be permitted to live quietly, and might without blame avoid the suffering readily for their piety’s sake, and the endurance even of death itself in the flesh, should it so befal, and by so doing would incur no disgrace, He of necessity, so to speak, testifies that those who would be thought worthy of the glory He bestows, must attain to it by proportionate acts of bravery, saying, “He that will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross every day, and come after Me.”
Cyril of Alexandria. (1859). A Commentary upon the Gospel according to S. Luke. (R. P. Smith, Trans.) (pp. 221–222). Oxford: Oxford University Press.